I had the privilege, and mixed pleasure, of interviewing the artist, Feldsott, about his recent series Covid Diaries. I say “mixed pleasure” because, while Feldsott was a delight to interview —thoughtful, respectful, responsive—, the inescapable subtext of our talk, the COVID-19 pandemic, and all its horrific suffering with more suffering to come, injected emotional pain into our new relationship.
Feldsott (b. 1954) was originally a self-taught artist, later training at the MFA program at the California College of the Arts without having earned, or even entered, an undergraduate degree program. That individuality is still evident in his highly charged intuitive gestures, drawn in part from the myriad eclectic cultural sources he has gleaned in an almost nomadic life of travel. Now California-based, Feldsott continues to produce paintings that emerge from the breadth of his intuitive mind and the depths of his compassionate soul.
You've been working on a new series, Covid Diaries. When did you start the series?
March, just as the virus broke out in Wuhan. I came back from China for knee surgery in the US. I could not physically do large works as I needed crutches after surgery, and then the Covid thing happened, and I decided I wanted to work on something small. And then came the shutdown, so I thought, why don't I make a diary of this time, this experience when we are all cut off from each other.
How big is the series?
I found this stack of papers in my studio, about 30 inches by 22 inches, a small scale for me, and as the whole thing is on paper, I had the feeling that it was pages from a diary of this experience of a once in a century, global pandemic when everybody in the world is affected.
What kind of a medium did you use?
Most of my work is mixed media. I use anything that's in my studio. I use different kinds of paint and mediums, combining elements and exploring what effect happens.
How long did it take to complete each work? How often do you make your “diary pages”?
I work every day —it's a practice like doing martial arts or meditation, whether it's convenient or not. When I start painting, it's not clear what the work is supposed to look like. Some pieces get finished quickly and others take a long time because I don't see an immediate resolution —it could take anywhere from a week to a month.
Your diary work reminds me of Christian Krohg, Edvard Munch, and Käthe Kollwitz. How did you come up with such energetic, violent images? “The Crippled Man” and “Unknown Bird with Broken Wings” are they portraits or representative idealizations?
My art career is an exploration into the depth of the psyche and the energetics of human experience. My examination of the pandemic is not a giant leap of intention for me as I seek the primordial energetics underneath, the interior architecture of where events originate. Where does war come from? Or where does cruelty come from? I don't try to report events; instead, I try to examine the internal energy that generated the events. From my view, when the pandemic appeared, it was very organic to be curious and investigate it on all different levels: psychic, emotional, and spiritual levels.
The virus seems to emanate from wild animals brought into human interaction. In China, they were saying it was bats in food markets. I thought that was an interesting metaphor for our human relationship to the natural world and how we subjugated and harmed the natural gifts we had.
Yes, some scientists have said that it's like a revenge of nature.
It's an equalizer. We have been so arrogant. “Meet the New Boss” was a joke, but it wasn't a joke. We might think we are the boss, but now we are afraid to touch each other, and everybody is wearing masks. We are fearful of this wild virus. That is an example of a not-so-conscious painting and exploring as these images start to emerge.
Could you explain how you arrived at “Justice for All”? It has a subtitle in parenthesis, ‘What a crock of shit’. Am I looking at a Black Lives Matter protester in flames in the foreground and an American flag riddled with bullet holes?
My work has dealt with these issues before, but the exciting thing about the Covid experience was that it wasn't just about a respiratory illness. At this moment, there arises social unrest that speaks to another disease. The Othering of people, the subjugation of people, the entitlement of certain groups or classes, and the belittlement of other people's loss of dignity. I thought the social unrest mirrored the pandemic that says, “I can't breathe.” These elements are not separate but a message about the unsustainability of our behavior. For me, there is this opportunity of a new creative possibility to change our way of being in the world. These are challenging times, but also incredibly inspiring and extraordinary times. I want the Covid Diaries to reflect the energy in these moments, the potential of the change, the shift, the emergence of a new way of living.
Some of your works have clear narratives, such as “Untitled (Woke from a dream, found blood on my hands)”. What was your dream? I see it is about George Floyd's killing, but I am unclear about the four figures in the background: are they police officers in riot gear? Or perhaps victims of COVID-19 in their coffins? Did you intend ambiguity?
If I am successful in my work, there is ambiguity. Whether it's police in riot gear or people in coffins, whether it's about Covid or George Floyd, or thousands and thousands of people who feel subjugated, it doesn't matter. For me, all of these works are expressions of Covid. I don't see the social unrest or the police brutality, or the choking of George Floyd as distinct from Covid. The experience of Covid is living cut off from others and having trouble breathing. We are isolated, alone, and feeling the world we know is not accessible. When faced with examining what is essential, the questions are what brings joy to you and your family and what you want to provide to your children. And how are you going to adapt?
The raw, almost primitive quality of your Covid Diaries is a distinctive aspect of your art recognized by curators and art historians such as Peter Selz. What are the strongest influences on your art, historically and stylistically speaking? Where did you acquire such sensibilities?
None of this was intentional. As a young artist in the early 70s, I didn't choose an aesthetic or a style to represent myself. The Beat poets most influenced me, and I was influenced by jazz musicians of the 50s and 60s. In their work, I found a willingness to experiment and make sounds that are not necessarily pleasant or ordinarily associated with music. That way of approaching art was incredibly inspiring to me.
I spent a fair amount of time among indigenous people in Central and South America, so some critics try to find the correlation between my work and those experiences. Still, if you look at my work from the early 70s, it is already filled with ancient primal imagery. My images came from inside of me, a deep place that I accessed. Maybe that place is in all people. We can find cultural commonalities when people go to that deep DNA that we share as humans. My imageries are songs, dances, and elements that are common threads.
What do you think is the role of an artist in this tumultuous time of pandemic? Do you feel you have a mission in life?
For all of us, there is a mission: hopefully, we inspire each other and learn from each other and find curiosity and gratefulness. We cannot lose the world's threads that are in danger of being lost. There are traditions and people and ways of life and environments that may vanish in our lifetime. I think that would be a great tragedy. There is something important about keeping alive and awake to all of these instincts and feelings inside of us. We must stay connected to our lineages, to our traditions, to our ancestors. If my work can arouse curiosity about our collective human heritage, I would feel that I served some purpose.